September 20, 2021
Tammy Williams, a resident of Franklin, Tennessee, has called anything resembling critical race theory “racist” and divisive.
Deborah Edwards, a grandmother near Memphis, expressed dismay at her home state’s “attempt to censor the teaching of American history.”
And Michael Franklin, a Vietnam veteran from Nashville, said a new state law restricting class discussions of racism reminds him of McCarthyism in the 1950s, when a US senator’s paranoid hunt for infiltrators Communists forced thousands of people to quit their jobs.
Their statements – impassioned, at times poignant, often enraged – were among hundreds of comments submitted online to the Tennessee Department of Education about its proposed plan to enforce a new state law to end the teaching that explores concepts like systemic racism and white privilege.
The comments are being considered as Tennessee craft its final rules around the controversial law. These rules will help determine how Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will respond to complaints of alleged violations. It will have the power to suspend or revoke the licenses of teachers or to suspend the funding of schools.
It’s unclear when the state will begin enforcing the law, which went into effect on July 1. Most of the students returned to school in early August.
“The process is underway,” state spokesman Brian Blackley said on Friday when asked for a target date.
According to a Chalkbeat analysis of around 900 comments obtained through a request for public documents, almost half were from people identifying themselves as parents or grandparents. Almost 60 were from current, former or retired educators, and another 21 were from advocacy groups, professionals or citizens. A smatting was written by elected officials or district leaders. The remainder came from people who identified themselves primarily as citizens, residents, or taxpayers of Tennessee.
At least a third of the comments were from Williamson County, an enclave south of Nashville that is predominantly affluent and conservative, with significant political influence in a Republican QM state government.
Some Earls of Williamson have spoken out against any attempt to circumvent historical facts about slavery, Jim Crow laws or the withdrawal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. “My children and their peers deserve an honest education in the history of this country,” wrote Elizabeth Smith, the eldest of whom attends Williamson County schools.
But the vast majority of Williamson counties wrote that they supported the law, while also listing concerns about Schwinn’s enforcement plan. They didn’t like the 30-day limitation period for filing a complaint – and that only students, parents, or employees of the school or district in question would be eligible to file one.
“We parents need your help to resist indoctrination of our children into this radical, dishonest and divisive ideology,” said relative Cara Michelle, who accused Schwinn’s proposal of “weakening” the law to the detriment of parents and grandparents who want more votes. in what their children are taught.
Hundreds of commentators appeared to be using a model promoted by one of the many politically active groups that flooded Williamson County School Board meetings this year with concerns about student learning materials, diversity training for teachers and school mask mandates during the pandemic.
“This new rule is too vague, too restrictive, and does not protect the rights of parents or students,” says the language, used in more than 300 separate complaints.
As the state solicited comments on its law enforcement proposals, many writers used the platform to speak out for or against the new statute. Lawmakers passed the measure in May, the last day of the legislative session, just days after the bill was tabled and without inviting educators, parents or students to testify on its merits. Governor Bill Lee signed the bill soon after.
“How do you pass legislation prohibiting teachers from accurately teaching history while watching people die of COVID because of your inaction?” Wrote Karen Ekeh, an elementary school teacher in Memphis, referring to the governor’s reluctance to support mask warrants and another new law preventing schools from requiring COVID vaccinations.
Arlene Martin noted that lawmakers seem anxious to be sensitive to the feelings of white college students today, while they don’t do the same for college students with brown skin. She called the law “an old game manual.”
âFour hundred years ago, whites prohibited reading and writing for blacks,â said Martin.
But Kristen Metzinger said she welcomed the law to protect students from education which she said “puts children to shame because of their skin color.”
“I lived in California and fled because of the horrible living conditions and liberals and progressives destroying schools and the lives of our children. Can’t believe this is taking shape in Tennessee,” wrote Metzinger, who has not identified where she currently lives.
Michael Spain, who works at a Gibson County college, worried about any teaching that seemed to frame all lessons through the lens of race. “This deepens the divisions,” he writes, “and thus prevents us from true racial reconciliation.”
What Can Teachers Teach?
Commentators for and against the law have complained that the prohibited concepts are vague.
Since the law prohibits discussing whether “this state or the United States is fundamentally … racist or sexist,” does this also prohibit teaching that some of the nation’s Founding Fathers espoused racist views or owned slaves? ? asked Heidy Weinberg, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, which opposed the law.
“This law does not clarify what teachers can and cannot teach,” wrote Weinberg, who feared that the lack of clarity “would deter a wide range of classroom instruction.”
Jeanne Haddock, a former Knoxville teacher, suggested that the state ban classroom use of The New York Times’ Project 1619, which she called “contemptible, confrontational and bogus.” The collection of articles and essays maintains that the foundations of American history include the legacy of slavery and the contributions of black Americans.
Beverly Bond, who teaches history at the University of Memphis and taught at Germantown Public School for 11 years, said it would be impossible to teach American history without talking about race, gender and ethnicity. She called the proposed guidelines “anhistoric and downright ridiculous”.
âTeaching about race and racism doesn’t weaken or confuse students; it doesn’t embarrass or humiliate them,â Bond wrote. “Tennessee teachers are professionals who know their subjects and are sensitive to the feelings and needs of their students.”
Punishment and penalties
Under the state’s proposed plan, school systems found guilty of knowingly breaking the law could lose $ 1 million, or 2% of annual state funds, whichever is less. . Repeat offenders could lose as much as $ 5 million or 10% of funds.
But many commentators have called the sanctions excessive.
âIn this critically important time, when schools are called upon to address the socio-emotional needs of students during the COVID pandemic and strive to address learning loss amid unprecedented demands for education systems, now is not the time to impose additional financial burdens on the overworked, underfunded education systems, âwrote Joseph Gutierrez on behalf of the Maddox Foundation.
The Nashville-based foundation also challenged proposed penalties to revoke or suspend teacher licenses at a time when schools are already understaffed.
âThe punitive measures recommended by the Department of Education create a fear-based environment for teachersâ¦ and steal the joy teachers find in seeing students think critically about complex topics,â Gutierrez wrote.
Crystal Colter, whose daughter attends schools in the town of Maryville, said she feared for her daughter’s teachers. Politicized accusations are likely, she said, which would create a toxic environment.
âI don’t want our hard-working teachers to be distracted or distressed at having a target on their backs regarding what they’re teaching,â Colter wrote.
Several comments came from Tennessee lawmakers who helped pass the law.
Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County, suggested the department remove any dollar amounts from the proposed sanctions and stick to state funding percentages. âLarger districts that could challenge the legislation could afford the fines,â Cepicky wrote, referring to the Memphis and Nashville school systems.
Most of the influential groups opposed the law. They included the Tennessee Education Association, the Education Trust in Tennessee, the YWCA, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, and the Student Press Law Center.
A coalition representing libraries in Tennessee called the law an “act of censorship” contrary to the democratic ideal of free access to information.
Despite all the hubbub, Nashvillian Stephen Bryant asked why. He noted that the academic framework of Critical Race Theory is primarily used in higher education – not K-12 schools – to explore how race and racism influence law, culture, business and American politics.
âMy main concern is the distrust of public schools and the teachers that this law and guidelines encourage, without a warrant,â wrote Bryant, a retired United Methodist Church leader. “The publicity around this case is drawing a lot of attention to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
This press release was produced by Chalkbeat Tennessee. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.